Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Travels Soundtrack: Southeast Asia

There's certainly no dearth of songs about Vietnam, my first stop in southeast Asia. I can only think of like two right now, but I'm sure there's a ton. Anyway, 'Born in the USA' by the Boss gets my selection as the headlining song on my Vietnamese soundtrack. I like this video a little bit extra because it's in France.





Onwards to Cambodia, with an easy selection for 'Holiday in Cambodia' by the Dead Kennedys. I don't actually have this on my MP3 player, but I imagined listening to it while I was there. Another politically/socially critical song, but there's not much else to say in music about SE Asia. At least until you get to Thailand...





The above video was apparently made by some 10th grader. Thanks, kid.

Now to Laos. I don't know any songs that reference or are about Laos, but some of the Vietnam war protest songs might be appropriate since we dropped more bombs on Laos during the Vietnam war than we did on Vietnam. Anyway, this song is at least somewhat relevant to Laos, considering the government there is a bunch of commies, or close enough for all you people who know what these sorts of political terms mean.





I listened to this song a lot. I happily discovered in on my MP3 player in southern Laos as Adam was incapacitated when I chose a band at random to listen to; I have a lot of bands I've never heard of on my MP3 player, for just this reason.

Thailand is my final entry for southeast Asia. I was tempted to go with this little ditty by Steven Seagal. Seriously. Seagal has released two albums. I don't know if his video is actually supposed to be Thailand or another SE Asian country, but I think Thailand is the best bet. Either way, I feel pity for the poor girl that has to touch him in the video.

No, the clear choice for Thailand is Murray Head's 80s classic 'One Night in Bangkok'.




After I failed to hitchhike by sea from Thailand to India (so much for any sitars in this series of posts) I went back through Laos and China. Feel free to listen to 'Reds in My Bed' and 'China Girl' again.

Next up: central and western Asia.

Travels Soundtrack: East Asia

When I started traveling, early on, somewhere in Russia, I got the entirely novel idea to listen to songs about the places I was traveling through.

The natural choice for Russia is Back in the USSR by the Beatles, but I'm going to use that for all the ex-Soviet states, so instead my selection for Russia is 'Siberian Breaks' by MGMT.

I didn't embed it because I don't actually recommend that you watch the whole video. Like Siberia itself, this song is long and mostly boring. It's not really a great song, despite what hipster contrarians will tell you. The rest of their second album is masterful though.

Next stop Mongolia. This is a NOFX classic from my high school days - 'All Outta Angst'. It's not entirely about Mongolia, but there's a short verse about it. Close enough.



And then China. Good ol' China. I made a point to listen to 'China Girl' by David Bowie. Not really about China, but what the hell, it's a great song, and it beats 'Chinese Democracy' by Guns N Roses.




Rewinding a bit, I don't really know any songs about Korea. I was technically traveling in Korea, although I lived there long enough that I don't really consider it much of traveling any more. Regardless, I'll throw you all a great song that's about a certain neighborhood in Korea. I was going to go with the sublime majesty of Girl's Generation's 'Gee', but instead, you get 'Itaewon Freedom' by M/V, of which, for a long period of time, I just couldn't get enough.




Next installment: southeast Asia.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Trike!

video


Mother and I happened to be in the right subway car at the right time in Berlin. Although at first, when I saw this dude setting up his keyboard, I was ready to ignore him and the violin-toting chick he was with so I wouldn't have to hand over some change to buskers I had no interest in. Just a natural reaction to people that look for money from me, but these guys deserve a lot of credit, and a bit of money.

The song they played over the course of three subway stops was awesome. The video above is just a piece of Love is a Temperature Thing I shot on Mother's camera. The duo is Canadian and the dude played the keyboard and sang, and did both quite theatrically. The chick played the violin and tap-danced in heavily duct-taped shoes.

They go by the name of Trike. The guy had enough time to tell me about a show they were playing the following night, which I went to because it's Berlin, and if you don't see some sort of show here, you're not doing something right.

It was in a dingy garage of a shack. The first band played some stripped down but very excellent covers of such diverse acts as the Specials, Michael Jackson, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and other shit I didn't recognize. The second band was four chicks, but I didn't really listen to them because my friend from Laos arrived and we were outside talking.

Trike was last and their whole show was as theatrical and entertaining as the subway song. They had little dances to go with some songs, and even their own dance and song called the Trikey. It's simple, but I still had trouble with it because I suck at dancing. It was possibly the most entertaining show I'd been to since I saw GoGo Star at some multi-venue AIDS benefit night in Hongdae.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Photos!


I uploaded more pictures, a double-shot in fact! That's right, please remain calm.

I made an album of Belgium, and one of my two recent trips through the Netherlands.

Click the above links, or just use the ones on the right, as always.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Educated Tourism


As a tourist, it's important to have some knowledge of the place you are to visit. To do otherwise is to embrace ignorance and to tarnish the good name of tourism. Don't feel like you need to be an expert, but a little information and understanding begets much more of the same.

Above all, don't ever fall for anything resembling this hippie bullshit: "Going somewhere with a clean slate really gives you a pure experience man." This serves only as an excuse for laziness and ignorance.

Example:

I was recently in Belgium with my brother and my mother. Before our mother arrived, on our first night in Brussels, Andy and I watched JCVD as cultural research.

The hippies might've said, "Don't stay in your hotel room, man. Go out and experience something!" At the risk of repeating myself, this is terrible advice because I'm neither lazy nor ignorant. Plus it was a Sunday and there was absolutely nothing happening in the city. It was almost frightening.

So we got a taste for how Belgians feel about the Muscles from Brussels. It was a real local perspective on an international star. And we planned to visit the neighborhood where most of the action takes place to really solidify our appreciation for our new cultural understanding, but there just wasn't enough time unfortunately.

However, we did get to live a bit of culture in Bruges. In Bruges, brother, mother, and I watched In Bruges. I'd seen it before, but really benefited from the refresher.

After watching the film, we were armed with the knowledge that we were in the midst of a fairytale fucking town, full of canals, bridges, cobbled streets, churches and other fairy tale shit. And swans; the swans are still there.

We made a little In Bruges walking tour in Bruges. Naturally, there is the belfry, the Basilica of the Holy Blood (not actually featured in the film, that scene with Jesus' fucking blood is in the Jerusalem church), the Grote Markt and so forth. The dwarves, fat Americans, and annoying Canadians were nowhere to be seen.

We tried to find 17 Raamstraat. There actually is a Raamstraat, but it wasn't where the scene was shot. That was somewhere east of Jan van Eyckplein.

So take my word for it: don't be an uninformed tourist! Arm yourself with knowledge and understanding, and you will be richly rewarded.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rain


It seems like any place that doesn't have 300 sunny days a year likes to adopt the much abused platitude of "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes!"

Rotterdam, a good-looking modern city by the way, deserves the right to claim this saying. The rain and sun might as well be controlled by an on/off switch.

I was walking down the sidewalk the other day in the sunshine, when I saw a quickly approaching line of shadow that brought a curtain of rain with it.

It literally seemed like floodgates had opened up in the sky, and a hard line of water was advancing down the street.

Five minutes later the sun was out. I know New Englanders like to say the weather there is testy, but it doesn't compare to the last few days in Rotterdam. Rain in the morning, then sunshine, then gusts that blow food off the table, then rain again, and sun that dries the sidewalks as quickly as they were soaked.

It's just ridiculous.

Seven years ago, my mother met me in Iceland for a bit of traveling, as she has now done in continental Europe. We were going on a tour to a waterfall and some geysers, and asked the clerk at her hotel what was going to happen if it rained. I still remember her blunt response.

"We do everything rain or shine, or else we wouldn't do anything at all."

I think Rotterdam needs to modify Iceland's functional philosophy: "We do everything rain and shine, because that's what every day is."

Coming to This!


I've finally published another article in the Exter News-Letter. It his the presses a couple days ago.

The topic is technology and socializing while traveling. Contradictory to my whining in the article, I wrote the whole thing in a hostel in Amsterdam, completely shutting myself off from everyone else in the place. Consider it research.

Read it here, or just click the link on the right.

Friday, June 17, 2011

European Customer Service!


There's nothing like overpaying for something, and getting treated like shit!

I'm a Cheap Bastard!


There's no denying it. Ever since I arrived in Europe, I can't help comparing prices here to prices in Asia. It's one of the reasons I hitchhiked from Turkey to the Netherlands, and it's the main reason I haven't been drinking so much.

When I was waiting for a ride at a highway rest stop in Germany, I paid three Euros for a liter of water. That's $4.50 for a fucking bottle of generic water. They didn't even bother with the pretense of claiming it was from some sparkling pure spring. Granted, that's an extreme example, but you get the idea. It cost $1 just to use the toilet.

I usually can't stand when people are whinging about money all the time. It's a horrible habit to have when traveling. When someone is complaining about costs and prices and how they save money by doing this, and by not doing that, their focus is not on the present moment of being somewhere new and different, and it annoys the shit out of anyone in earshot.

I never whined too much until I got to Europe. I had enough money to not have to count pennies as long as I was making at least a half-assed effort to travel on the cheap. A nice sit-down meal now and then? The occasional taxi ride? A private room here and there? No problem when meals are four dollars and shared rooms aren't much more.

Those days are long gone. I can't afford to pay $45 for a room every night. Hostels in Amsterdam – fucking bunk beds in mildewy hovels – are up to $50 a night on the weekends. I had to rearrange all of my plans, confusing the hell out of my mother and myself as I tried to find cheap places in different cities on short notice.

Yesterday in Bruges, I kept refusing my mother's suggestion that we buy a little something to share since I had a quarter loaf of bread, some cheese slices, and salami in a bag swinging off my shoulder. I was determined to make a sandwich with what I already bought to save me a few dollars.

I'm becoming a cheapskate downer and it's getting bad.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Map!


View The Actual, Real Route in a larger map.

For a while, I was keeping up with my route's map. Then, somewhere around Xi'an, GoogleMaps just sort of stopped working for me. It wouldn't save any updated markers or paths, no matter how often I tried.

So I decided to make a new, better one. I have all the markers on there, as you see, but no routes or info. I doubt many people care that much, but I'll get around to filling it out eventually for my own sake.

The page can always be accessed on the top navigation bar.

A Proper Welcome


Border crossings, airports, train stations, etc. all offer a great opportunity to make a good first impression with travelers. I had the good fortune to enter Belgium via the Antwerp train station.

Take a look at that photo (not mine). After gathering my bags, brushing past people in their seats traveling onward, and turning out the door, this sight really impressed the hell out of me. It was Gothic, it was beautiful, it was spacious, it had a lot of high windows.

It did what most cathedrals aim to but often fail to do - it made me stop, catch my breath, crane my neck backwards and stare reverentially upwards saying "ho-ly shit".

And I wasn't the only one. Travelers, people generally keen to get the hell out of a train station, were dropping their bags and snapping pictures all over the place. It's a grand welcome, and great way to set the tone for a visit to a beautiful city.

When I entered China through Laos, the Chinese border control station was almost equally sublime, mainly because of the contrast it represented from Laos. The Chinese surely know how to flaunt their wealth over their poorer, less developed neighbors.

Take a look:



Sure, it's just a normal building right? Don't forget how relative the word "normal" is. Laos doesn't have a single skyscraper in the country. They don't have trains. The lovely capital city might as well be a village.

It took a day an a half on semi-paved roads to get from Vientiane to this border post. In Laos, the "highway" is a two-lane road that winds up and around mountains. Villages along the road were literally along the road: their depth was one house deep and the houses were built on the shoulder. You could see people bathing at the public spigots.

Then you get to China where the roads - fully paved, multi-lane roads - go through mountains instead of around them, where the border post is full of glass, natural light, and swooping roofs. It's a statement.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

BEER!


The beer started getting really good roundabouts Prague. There started to be more body to the beer, more flavor, and a hell of a lot more options. I'm no beer snob: I drank Hite, Cass, and Max for two years. But after two and a half years of quantity in Asia, a guy can need some quality in his life.

I had some beer in Brno at the gothstel I stayed at, but I don't remember what it was or how good it was. Like I said, I'm not picky. I have neither the palate or terminology to discriminate a whole lot between beer.

My second day in Prague I went to the Czech Beer Festival with Paul and Brian. To be honest, I thought it would be a bit more showy and built up considering it was one of the biggest beer festivals in a country famous for beer.

There were four or five huge tents set up behind a small amusement park at the end of the red line. There were families, people with dogs, cover bands that sounded exactly like The Shark, and groups of rowdy Brits, but a lot of the tables were empty. It was also mid-afternoon.

The beer was substantial, and there were plenty of selections. Each tent had about a dozen on tap.

In Hannover, I think I mainly drank sparkling wine and juice that I was fed by a clutch of drunk Finnish students in town for a wood-technology exposition. Not what you'd expect in Germany, but hey, it was free. Besides, Belgium is supposed to be the beer country. Unless you ask the Polish, the Czechs, or the Germans.

Holland actually had some pretty good beer. It certainly wasn't Heineken or the generic Beer brand beer that was special, but Andy and I did get some good stuff.

I drank the zatte and the struis at the de Gooyer windmill brewpub. In Alkmaar, our CouchSurfer host Martine brought us to a pub with a big selection of Dutch craft beer. The pub, pictured at top, is underneath a beer museum. Andy and I went in during the day, but after being handed a ring of pages with translated captions and explanations, I couldn't bring myself to look at all the dioramas and photos and gave up and got my money back.

Belgian beer is indeed a thing to be cherished. Even an amateur palate such as mine can tell. We were taken out by Mieke, another host, to an interesting trio of bars in Antwerp.

First was Pelgrom, a cozy dungeon with low curving brick ceilings where I drank a Westmalle Tripel.

Next up was The 11th Commandment, bar that was fucking jam-packed with statues of Jesus, Mary, saints, and the rest of the crew. I was tickled by so many people getting drunk surrounded by so many religious images. The Rochefort 8 tasted especially good with an atmosphere of sacrilege. The 11th commandment, by the way, was to have fun. This is according to the bar, and basically contrary to the general idea of the first ten as far as I'm concerned.

Last was a more run-of-the-mill pub whose name translated to The Monk's Little Keg. Come to think of it, drinking very strong beer in the presence of piety might not be so sacrilegious considering monks make the best beer. This bar certainly had the largest beer list of the places we went.

The bad news is that it may be all downhill from Belgium. The good news is that I'm still in Belgium.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Amsterdam


I was in Amsterdam for a night about seven years ago. I ate the best steak I've ever had at an Argentinian place I wandered into, watched Germany and Holland tie in the Euro tournament, and wandered into a coffee shop bored, and out high as a kite.

I walked in one direction until I was out of the insanity of the city and sat on a park bench, awake, until the sun came up. I ate breakfast, and took a train back to Berlin.

I was looking forward to actually getting a feel for the city on this trip. I met my brother in a hostel, and we walked around the city. The central area is a true tourist hell-hole, the Khao San Road of Europe, but with astronomically inflated prices.

How do people who aren't filthy rich enjoy places like this? A slice of pizza is about five bucks. A bottle of water is about two, and a beer at a "cheap" bar is about six. Sleeping in a bunk bed in a crowded dorm is like thirty bucks.

I took my brother out for a birthday dinner at an Argentinian steak restaurant, hoping to relive the meal of seven years ago that still makes my mouth water when I recall it. I spent $100 on a pile of meat I could've bought in any grocery store and grilled up in my backyard.

We tried seeing some non-weed/sex attractions. The Anne Frank house had a line that snaked out of the door and around three or four buildings. The Van Gogh museum wasn't much better.

The city redeemed itself the next day! Mainly because we got the hell out of the central area. There is a brewery and pub affixed to an old windmill that had great beer we drank. The neighborhood was quiet and uncrowded. There was space. We ate sandwiches that we made from a local supermarket, and scoped out a little library and record shop.

Then the best part of Amsterdam came early in the morning of our last day. I got to watch live hockey on a real TV, from a real TV channel. We woke up at 2AM to watch hockey in the hostel bar, and the Bruins FUCKING KILLED the Canucks. It was glorious.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Photos!


I've uploaded more photos! I added an album of the few photos I took while I was hitchhiking. Mostly it's just boring photos of random roads, but there's a few of some crazy drunken Finnish wood-engineering students I met in Hannover.

That photo above is my final destination on the hitchhiking trip, Sean and Helen's place in The Hague. I made it, after a ridiculous series of local train mix-ups, but that's another story, and not a very interesting one.




I also added an album when I was in and around Prague. There I got to hang out with my good homeys Maggie from NH and Paul from Korea. He's not really from Korea, that's just where I know him from.

As always, the link will go on the right-hand sidebar. I'm not bothering to put one for the hitchhiking on the side, because most of the pictures are dull, and it would ruin my list of countries visited.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Too Easy To Enjoy?


I guess it's just the masochist in me.

I planned this trip overland to make things a little more interesting, to get a real sense of the size of this planet, and to challenge myself a bit. After all, backpacking isn't the hardest thing to do. You just need a bit of apathy and a bit of adventure directed correctly.

The original plan was to make it to western Europe via land. Check.

But when I was leaving Turkey and decided to hitchhike, it was partly out of frugality, and partly out of adventure. I did make it entirely across Asia by bus, train, and boat. Why bother making myself do the same through Europe?

It'd probably be like hiking the Appalachian trail north to south. You get the hard part out of the way immediately, so you just coast through the rest.

So I decided to hitchhike. That's harder than taking trains. And now I'm thinking about cycling through France and Spain to Morocco. That's harder than hitchhiking. And after that, maybe finding a boat across the Atlantic back to the States. At this point, taking a plane for any reason just seems too easy. That's probably harder than hitchhiking, finding a boat that will take me on as crew.

Too easy to enjoy? I doubt it, but a little extra challenge never hurt anyone.

What all this has to do with a baby mannequin in a stroller with a laptop? Well, I don't think I need to state the obvious.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hitching Complete!


All in all, it took only six days to hitchhike through eight countries across the entire European continent, from Turkey to the Netherlands. It went much faster than I thought it would.

Everyone that picked me up was super nice. The Polish truck driver that brought me most of the way to the Netherlands yesterday even insisted I try some Polish beer as we were driving, since I casually mentioned that I'd heard good things about it. He also bought me a salad and a lemon-yogurt drink.

Road hospitality is a great thing.

Hitchhiking has a bad reputation, but after this trip, I'm convinced it's only those super rare stories of rape, murder, and general mayhem that sully its reputation. Case in point: I wasn't murdered even a single time.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Hitching Istanbul to Prague: Day 4


I was only a few hours from Prague in Brno, and took my time getting out. A questionably gay Syrian man served me a kebap for breakfast, and I took the tram to a bus to get out of the city.

I got way lost finding the highway from the last bus stop. I thought I was in the wrong place. Turns out I was just disoriented and spent an hour looking in the wrong direction before I had to push my way through a bunch of bushes and wet grass on the side of the highway for twenty minutes, in between the road and the industrial businesses, to get to a roadside gas station.

A woman and her little boy stopped to give me a lift. She had just come back from some new age philosophical retreat in Arizona. Some weird Flower of Life thing. Anyway, she got me to a larger gas station with a McDonald's, ensuring more cars. A young abdominal surgeon picked me up and we drove off through the countryside to pick up his wife before setting off toward Prague.

The countryside alone was worth the four days of hitching. It was a bit rainy, so the rolling fields were extra green, and we curved past airy pine woods and rain-slick hamlets.

They dropped me right off at a metro station, and were a super nice couple. We'd talked a lot about traveling, their bike trips through eastern Europe, and beer. Someone's a good photographer too.

I met Paul at a cafe near his apartment, the waiter called us little girls for only having one beer, and that's where all the fun began.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hitching Istanbul to Prague: Day 3


I was up even earlier than I thought since I hadn't factored the time change into my clocks. I don't know where exactly the time changed, but I was up, out of town on the metro and buses, and standing on the side of the highway, something I did because it was small and there was a huge pull-off area, but don't normally recommend, at 7:30AM.

One sure advantage of overland travel is the absence of jet lag.

I was hoping to make it to Budapest, but made it way farther. In about 12 hours, I made it 700KM to Brno, Czech Republic.

I got a ride past Novi Sad instantly when I stepped onto the highway outside of Belgrade. After about 45 minutes of waiting, a kid about my age named Dusan picked me up and brought me all the way to a rest stop just before Budapest. He spoke great English, and we talked about motorcycles, American gas prices, local history. I briefly thought he was lulling me into a sense of comfort just to take off with all my stuff when he took a suspiciously long time in the bathroom at a gas station, and I was waiting inside at a table, but that was unfounded. We continued on our way towards Budapest.

After he dropped me off outside the city, before the roads split into ring roads and through roads, I waited for about 15 minutes until a Romanian trucker picked me up. His name was Dieman, and he understood more English than he spoke. He did speak Spanish well though, and after I tried to use my poor, rusty Spanish skills, he told me just to speak in English, and he'd speak in Spanish. We managed to understand each other. He gave me an energy drink, but I still managed to nod off a bit.

He dropped me off at another rest area, still in Hungary, and after 10 minutes a Turkish trucker picked me up and brought me across the border. He did some paperwork, and I played my guitar on the curb at the border. I was a bit confused since there were no passport checks, but just went with it. Welcome to Europe, I suppose. It's a drastic change from the harrowing visa processes and waiting times in parts of central and eastern Asia.

It was a little past five when I got dropped at another rest stop outside Bratislava. I thought I'd try to get into the Czech Republic, though I knew I could get a bed and relax in the city. Another Romanian driver picked me up. He wasn't sure if he could get me to Prague, due to distance and time regulations on truck drivers, but Brno was a likely place for me.

His name was Daniel and he spoke great English, and drove a brand new tractor without a trailer. He delivered chemicals all over Europe, and was on his way to Germany to pick up yet another truck. I played my guitar again as he dealt with border paperwork, and we talked about driving. He liked his job, and it seemed to me that driving down roads, with plenty of time to think and listen to music might be a nice job. I saw myself driving through the Outback, or south-western America, philosophizing and enjoying the open spaces.

"Everything is nice until you have to do it every day," he reminded me. Very true. I'll hold off on the trucking career for now.

I scampered off the highway, walking on the safe side of the guard rail up the exit ramp and into some suburbs of Brno. It was early evening, and kids with souped up cars overran a parking lot. Someone was doing doughnuts in a shitty compact car, screeching around in a circle, sending foul smelling rubber smoke into the air. Others were standing around their cars, generally loitering and socializing.

It was a hassle to find an ATM and get cash, but there was a tram going right into the city center, and I found a hostel online while I ate dinner. The place was a goth dream: faded red carpets, pale-skinned staff with stringy black hair and heavy boots, dim antique hallways and polished stone stairs and tiled walls. I had a room to myself, drank beer down in the bar, and did some serious Internetting for the first time in three or four days.

I relaxed, knowing that Prague was only a few hours away. I watched GoldenEye in my bed and reminisced about playing Nintendo 64 before fading off to sleep with my ears plugged against the life outside the big open windows.